Heady incense rises into the air at the Ethiopian Community Center’s coffee shop in Seattle, WA. Membera Tadesse runs the espresso machine and serves up lattes and cappuccinos with a side of thick, homemade bread.
The pleasant atmosphere doesn’t blunt the anger and sadness felt by Tadesse’s customers, almost all members of Seattle’s Ethiopian community. They grieve over Hana Williams, an Ethiopian orphan who died this past May of abuse at the hands of her adoptive parents. Tadesse says, “Everybody asked me, ‘What happened? What’s going on?” But Tadesse didn’t have any answers.
Few Ethiopians in Seattle knew Hana Williams, but the news of her death was widely forwarded among friends, posted on Ethiopian diaspora blogs, and covered in Awramba Times, a Seattle newspaper written in Amharic, the Ethiopian national language. There was anger at the Ethiopian government for “selling” their children away. There were questions about the adoption process. There was guilt for failing to prevent Hana’s death.
Grief has galvanized the broader Ethiopian community in Washington state, America’s third-largest behind California and the Washington D.C. area. The American Community Survey says 15,000 Ethiopians live here, although community leaders estimate the real number falls closer to 40,000. Last month the Ethiopian Community Mutual Association (ECMA) of Seattle launched the Hana Fund to support families who adopt from Ethiopia.
Hana Williams, a tragic death
Hana Williams or Hana Alemu (her Ethiopian name) was adopted in 2008 by Larry and Carri Williams from Sedro-Woolley, WA, a rural town between Seattle and the Canadian border. The Williams have six biological children, and another adopted son from Ethiopia. After Hana’s death, a county investigation found the Williamses subjected her to extreme punishments including beatings, forced isolation and starvation (she lost almost 30 pounds in the two years preceding her death). On the day of her death it was around 40 degrees and rainy, but Hana had been kept outside for hours. Carri Williams found her laying face down in the yard outside their house, unresponsive. The coroner concluded Hana died of hypothermia – malnutrition also played a role.
In October, Larry and Carri Williams were charged with homicide by abuse for Hana’s death, and first-degree assault of a child for their treatment of their other adopted Ethiopian child. All of their children have been placed in foster care. The Williams were released on bail and their trial is set for May 7, 2012.
Washington State’s Ethiopian Community Responds
Every Saturday at the Ethiopian Community Center on Rainier Avenue in south Seattle, Metassibia Mulugeta sings songs and recites proverbs in Amharic, joined by students at the Center’s preschool and immersion program. At the end of the morning, after a lunch of injera and wot (flat bread and sauce), they have an “African market” where parents can buy ingredients to make Ethiopian staples at home. Bargaining over prices is encouraged.
Many of those who come to the weekly classes were born in Ethiopia and adopted by American families. Some parents travel for hours to bring their children to learn about Ethiopian culture and language.
Mulugeta leads educational programs for the center, founded by the ECMA in 1983 as a support system for refugees. fleeing the brutal military junta running Ethiopia at the time. Mulugeta suggested starting the Hana Fund. “We wish [an outreach program] was there for her. I wish we started this earlier on,” Mulugeta says.
For years, adoptive parents have leaned on Mulugeta and other community members for informal help. “People would come and ask you, ‘I’m going to go bring a child [from Ethiopia]. Could you tell me what I should do? When I come back, can I get in touch with you?’” She would advise them, and even meet the families for a meal of Ethiopian food.
After Hana’s death, Mulugeta and other community leaders agreed they had to finally formalize their outreach and cultural exchange activities. They decided to create a place where both parents and children in adoptions could seek advice, and get help if the relationship was not working. “We are here as a friend, as an aunt, as a grandmother, or even as a mother to support you – because raising a child is not easy. Especially with the cultural differences,” she says. The Hana Fund will provide the monetary resources for this program; organizers hope to support a full-time staff member to manage the program in the future.
Laura Corkern is the mother of 14 children, one biological, five adopted from Ethiopia, and eight adopted from other countries. Corkern felt compelled to be part of meetings for the Hana Fund. Corkern’s family “struggled desperately” through their first adoption in 1995 of an eight-and-a-half year-old girl from India. “If we’d had a community with a very welcoming spirit and the desire to help us and her become a family and understand each other, it would have been immensely helpful and probably saved years of misunderstandings,” Corkern says.
Seattle’s Ethiopian community feels encouraged by the new action plan. “When they bring [Ethiopian children] to this country, if they register them with the community, hopefully the community will follow up how they’re doing. Because it’s like throwing one little fish in the ocean,” said Fakadu Desalegne, who attended a recent community meal at the Ethiopian Community Center. “But if the community knows where that person is and who sponsored them, once a year or every six months to check up on those cases, I believe it’s a good idea.”